As Republicans prepare to return to the majority in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Dick Hinch, the presumptive Speaker for the next biennium, is signaling a shift back to in-person committee meetings at the State Legislative Office Building.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Democrat-led House recessed for three months, completely re-writing the House Calendar in the process. When committee meetings did resume, they were remote via Zoom.
Before adjourning the House, Democrats voted to request an advisory opinion from the New Hampshire Supreme Court on the constitutionality of a possible remote session of the House. Republicans wanted to expand the request to include other constitutional provisions. The Republican request was joined by 19 Democrats requesting a broader opinion from the high court, but the question failed to gain a majority.
On Tuesday, the state’s four Justices (there is still a vacancy on the court) issued a unanimous ruling that a remote session of the House would not violate the state constitution’s definition of a quorum.
As long as the requisite number of representatives is ‘present,’ either in person or virtually, meaning that the requisite number is ‘at hand’ and ‘not absent,’” the provision is satisfied, the court wrote.
Outgoing Speaker Shurtleff, on the other hand, celebrated the ruling. “Today’s court ruling is a victory for common sense and safety,” Shurtleff says.
In an interview with WMUR, Shurtleff said he is “very concerned” about resuming in-person committee meetings at the Legislative Office Building.
Several Democrat Representatives who won re-election seconded Shurtleff’s safety concerns.
“This is dangerous. This is irresponsible. This is not how I want to start the biennium,” said Rep. Nutting-Wong (D-Nashua) on Twitter.
Rep. Timothy Horrigan (D-Durham) responded to her saying, “I love my job, but I also want to live & I don’t want to endanger those I live (sic). Or even those I hate, for that matter.”
However, critics like former state rep JR Hoell note that the court’s ruling was too limited. “The Supreme Court issued a very narrow opinion only related to the question asked,” former state rep JR Hoell tells NHJournal. “They neglected to answer broader and more appropriate questions.” Hoell filed a memorandum with the Supreme Court seeking to get the broader questions answered.
According to Hoell, there are other provisions of the state constitution that would prohibit remote sessions of the legislature beyond the question of achieving a quorum. His memorandum to the court asked them to expand the question at hand and rule on the broader constitutional questions.
“Can they do this?” Hoell says is the real question. “The answer is absolutely not.”
Hinch emphasized that the return to the LOB for public hearings will be done in a “safe-manner” to ensure that committee members, staff, and the public are safe. He expressed that the House will practice social distancing by using double committee rooms or utilizing Representative’s Hall more often and that they are looking into UV technology and other practices to maintain proper sanitization.